Could Great Lakes Fisheries Be Revived Through Fish Farms?

Sep 8, 2014
Originally published on September 8, 2014 7:20 pm

Even though Michigan is surrounded by more than 20 percent of the world's freshwater, fish farming is largely unheard of there.

But this summer, the aquaculture industry took a step forward. And that has touched off a debate over the appropriateness of fish farming on the Great Lakes.

There's only one company now in Michigan that raises fish for restaurants and grocery stores in large volumes. It's a family business, run by Dan Vogler, on a few acres near Harrietta, Mich., population 143.

There are more than a half-million fish at Harrietta Hills Trout Farm. They're mostly rainbow trout and the largest ones weigh 1.5 pounds.

Vogler wants to see more aquaculture in Michigan. He says with billions of people on the earth, and many looking for fresh fish, the state has an opportunity.

"Not only an opportunity but a responsibility to use our natural resources — use them responsibly — to grow food," he says.

Vogler's farm is on a creek that feeds the Manistee River on its way to Lake Michigan. This summer, his company received a permit to expand an existing hatchery at another location. It is also inland, on the Au Sable River in Grayling.

That's a popular trout fishing destination, and conservation groups are now challenging that permit, saying the state is not doing enough to protect the river.

Vogler says his operation causes no harm and if Michigan wants to produce seafood, this is the right way to do it.

"The reality is that the native Great Lakes wild fishery is in a state of general collapse," Vogler says. "If we're going to have locally available fish, it has to come from fish farms."

Even though Michigan borders all of the Great Lakes but Ontario, there are few commercial fishermen left here.

But that is not to say the lakes are not being used.

Half a century ago, the state decided that the lakes should be used for recreational fishing, and they were stocked with Pacific salmon. In the decades that followed, sport fishing became big business all up and down the coast.

That's why Howard Tanner was upset by a federal report this year suggesting that Michigan allow fish farms to operate on the Great Lakes. It was Tanner who ran the state's fish program in the 1960s when those first salmon were stocked in Lakes Michigan and Superior.

He calls fish farming "dangerous" and maintains that there is just no room for large fish pens in these lakes.

"The net pen culture would be in the places most favorable to other recreational and leisure time activities," Tanner says. "They want deep water close to shore. It doesn't mix with the sport fishery."

One of the problems with fish farms, in any location, is that fish waste adds nutrients, like phosphorus, to the water. Biologists say too much of it can harm the ecosystem and increase the kind of algae that contaminated Toledo's water supply this summer.

Tanner says fish farms that are in the ocean can deal with that waste.

"They have a flush for their system. It's called the tide. It flushes their waste products away into salt water," Tanner says, pointing out that no similar current exists in the Great Lakes. "There's no possible way for them to treat their waste."

There are some commercial fish pens on the Canadian side of Lake Huron, raising mainly rainbow trout. And operators there say the concerns over nutrient loading are exaggerated.

They even suggest some additional nutrients might help wild fish populations, since the upper Great Lakes are cold, sandy and lack nutrients.

Mike Rennie, a research biologist in Winnipeg, says an experiment done in a small lake in Canada did produce a benefit from fish farming.

"Overall, the lake trout population in the lake seemed to actually do better during the course of the experiment," says Rennie. "Population estimates actually went up; growth rates went up."

There are no proposals yet for fish farming in the Michigan waters of the Great Lakes. Judging by the controversy over expansion plans for just one inland operation, any proposal is likely to face fierce opposition.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Even though Michigan is surrounded by more than 20 percent of the world's freshwater, fish farming is largely unheard of there. This summer though the agriculture industry there took a step forward. And that has touched off a debate over the appropriateness of fish farming on the Great Lakes. Peter Payette of Interlochen Public Radio has the story.

PETER PAYETTE, BYLINE: There's only one company in Michigan that raises fish for restaurants and grocery stores in large volumes. It's a family business on a few acres near Harrietta, Michigan - population 143. There's more than half a million fish here of various sizes - mostly rainbow trout. The largest ones weigh a pound and a half. Dan Vodler feeds them by hand, spraying pellets across the water causing the surface to explode.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER BUBBLING)

PAYETTE: Vogler wants to see more aquaculture in Michigan. He says with billions of people looking for fresh food, the state has an opportunity.

DAN VOGLER: Not only an opportunity but we have a responsibility to use our natural resources - use them responsibly - to grow food.

PAYETTE: Vogler's farm is on a creek that feeds the Manistee River on its way to Lake Michigan. This summer, his company received a state permit to develop a second operation, also inland on the Au Sable River. That's a popular trout fishing destination. And conservation groups are now challenging that permit, saying the state's not doing enough to protect the river.

Dan Vogler says his operation causes no harm. And if Michigan wants to produce seafood, this is the right way to do it.

VOGLER: The reality is that the native Great Lakes wild fishery is in a state of general collapse. So if we're going to have locally available fish, it has to come from fish farms.

PAYETTE: Even though Michigan borders every Great Lake but Ontario, there are few commercial fisherman left here.

Half a century ago, the state decided that the lake should be used for recreational fishing. And state officials stocked them with Pacific Salmon. In the decades that followed, sport fishing became big business here - all up and down the coast.

That's why Howard Tanner was upset by a federal report this year suggesting that Michigan allow fish farms to operate on the Great Lakes. It was Tanner who ran the state's fish program in the 1960s when those first salmon were stocked in Lakes Michigan and Superior. He calls fish farming dangerous and maintains there's just no room for large fish pens in these lakes.

HOWARD TANNER: The net pen culture would be in the places most favorable to other recreational and leisure-time activities. They want deep water close to shore. It doesn't mix with the sport fishery that is there.

PAYETTE: One of the problems is fish waste add nutrients like phosphorus to the water. Biologists say too much of it can harm the ecosystem and increase the kind of algae that contaminated Toledo's water supply this summer. Howard Tanner says fish farms that are in the ocean can deal with that waste but not in a lake.

TANNER: They have a flush for their system. It's called the tide. It flushes their waste products away into salt water. They're talking about no tides. And there's no possible way for them to treat their waste.

PAYETTE: There are some commercial fish pens on the Canadian side of Lake Huron, raising mainly rainbow trout. And operators there say the concerns over nutrient loading are exaggerated and that it might even help wild fish populations.

Mike Rennie is a research biologist in Winnipeg and says an experiment done in a small lake in Canada did produce a benefit from fish farming.

MIKE RENNIE: Overall, the lake trout population in the lake seemed to actually do better during the course of the experiment. So the population estimates actually went up. Growth rates for the fish went up.

PAYETTE: There are no proposals yet for fish farming in the Michigan waters of the Great Lakes. And judging by the controversy over expansion plans of just one inland operation, any proposal would likely to face fierce opposition. For NPR News, I'm Peter Payette in Interlochen, Michigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.